Quick Tips for Separating Your Compostables

Photo by Audrey Jenkins

Composting is a great way to reduce your environmental impact, give back to your community, and create a superb soil amendment for your garden, but isn’t collecting all those food scraps after every meal a lot of work and mess? In a word, no. Collecting scraps to compost is just as easy as separating your recyclables and no messier than making dinner. With the fourth post in our composting series, it’s time for the nitty-gritty on collecting and saving food scraps at home.

If you’re just joining our composting series, our first post discussed which of your common household scraps can actually be composted, and our second and third posts lent tips on how to compost at home and how to compost elsewhere, respectively. Once you decide whether you’d like to build your own compost or donate your scraps to a program in your community, start composting by setting those scraps aside with these simple tips!

Where to Keep Your Scraps

Of all the places to keep organic scraps, the trash is worst. Aside from squandering precious organic materials, consider the odors emitted by a garbage can full of peelings, spoiled fruit and leftovers. Flies and other vermin are attracted to these smells, and because all your waste is in the same bin, you’re bound to release those attractants multiple times a day. When you compost, separating your organics from other waste materials means reducing those odors and unwanted visitors. Here’s a rundown of the most common places to store food scraps for compost.

The Freezer or Fridge

Sticking scraps in the freezer or refrigerator is a super clean, easy way to collect compostables. Grab some paper or plastic bags, fill them up over the course of a week by taking them out of the cold to add new scraps, then dump the chilled (or frozen) scraps when you have time. If you use paper bags, you can toss the entire collection on the compost and be done. Plastic bags are a bit more work, since you will need to dispose of the bag separately. You can also use old yogurt containers, glass jars, paper milk or ice cream cartons, and many other alternative freezable containers.

I use a durable, freezer-safe bucket with a sealable lid (pictured above). I wanted a container that would encourage my roommates to start saving their food waste as well. We designated a spot in our freezer for the bucket and pull it out whenever we cook, keeping the lid closed until we have vegetable cuttings, eggshells or other items to discard. If the container fills up near the end of the week, we use bags to supplement our capacity. I like bags because they’re easy to stuff in the cracks of a tight freezer.

Freezing and refrigerating compostables has important perks. First, no matter how late you are “taking out the compost,” frozen scraps will never decompose and refrigerated scraps will be virtually odorless, so you’ll never need to worry about smells or attracting unwanted guests. Second, the more full your refrigerator or freezer, the less energy you will spend each time you open either door, saving you money! Third, if you live with other people, they may be more receptive to cold storage than other compost collecting methods.

Under the Sink or On the Counter

If you don’t have room in your freezer, or will be discarding waste every few days, storing kitchen scraps under your sink or on your counter may be a convenient option. When you’re cooking or find spoiled food in your kitchen, a countertop collector offers easy access for quick disposal. To keep scraps tidy between the time you save them and the time you actually dump them on a compost pile, you’ll need a container that’s easy to keep clean, seal and store out of the way. Look for containers at kitchen supply stores or check to see if your local government provides home composting equipment.

Room temperature collecting is naturally smellier than cold storage, so some commercial containers are fitted with filters to control odor. This is especially useful if you do not take your compost out daily. Sustainable Table’s Chris Hunt can vouch for his stainless steel, charcoal-filtered container. He only takes his compost scraps out twice a month, but odor is never an issue. Some containers are also fitted to hold compostable bags, like BioBag, for easy take out (though check with whomever manages your compost operation to ensure that these bags are accepted). Check out DIY Natural’s do it yourself charcoal filter container for ideas about building your own countertop or under the sink compost bucket.

In the Garage

Keeping your scraps in the garage may be useful during winter months when cold weather can slow decomposition, but unless you’re participating in a municipal collection program with curbside collection bins, garage storage is unnecessary. When done right, indoor collection isn’t smelly and is more convenient. If you prefer to keep waste outside, however, make sure your collection bin is tightly sealed. You can easily wrap scraps in newspaper or toss them in a large pot, paper bag or bucket for one-trip post-meal disposal.

Clean and Simple Collecting

Once you have a scrap bucket, make things easy by limiting the number times you open your container. A good trick is to scrape all the food waste from your meal into a single dish before opening your bag or bin. This limits the number of times you will need to take your scraps out of the freezer or open your countertop container. When cooking, try keeping your cuttings, peelings and other preparation wastes in one area of the kitchen. You could toss scraps in the sink as you go, or use a cutting board or colander that you can relocate as needed. 

Chop up bulky scraps to get the most volume out of your bag or bin. Another option to reduce your volume is to avoid composting leftovers or preparation waste altogether. You can find plenty of recipes for reusing leftovers and commonly discarded, yet perfectly edible scraps like kale stems and broccoli stalks online. Check out our post on reducing food waste using mobile apps to cut your food waste and limit your compost needs.

If you keep your scraps at room temperature, fruit flies are bound to make an appearance every so often. Peelings, especially from fruit, often harbor fruit fly eggs, so refrigerating ripe produce and freezing the peels as soon as possible can help deter flies. To keep flies at bay in your countertop bucket, try lining your bin with newspaper or soiled paper towels to reduce moisture. You can also sprinkle small amounts of baking soda to curtail odors, add melon cuttings to your collection or rub vinegar along the top of your container. The best way to avoid flies and smells, however, is to freeze your food scraps – or simply take your compost out regularly and wash the reusable container every time.

Remember: Oils, dairy and meat scraps are usually not accepted at local compost programs. Unless you’re composting through a large municipal program, or you’re willing to attract animals to your home compost, keep these items out of your collecting bucket. Store meat and oil waste in the freezer separately to reduce garbage smells before trash day.

Taking Out Your Compost

Weekly scrap disposal is ideal. Many compost programs accept waste a few days a week. Simply carry your bucket or bag to your compost or local compost site, dump your scraps and take a few seconds to wash and rinse out your container. Use soap or a dilution of vinegar and warm water to scrub out your compost bucket. If possible, share compost disposal duties with your housemates (or kids if you have them – composting as a chore is a great teachable moment!) to make things even easier. 

From the kitchen to the compost pile, saving organic waste is easy and can divert tons of valuable material from the waste stream. For more tips on how to collect and compost organic scraps, visit The Compost Guide or call City Farmer’s Compost Hotline with questions.